Did You Know? Herty Is an ACS Historic Landmark

Dr. HertyLess than a year after Charles Herty opened his research lab, a Georgia weekly called the Soperton News printed its March 31, 1933, edition on experimental paper made from southern pine trees. Seven months later, nine other newspapers followed suit.

Herty had championed, cajoled, and shepherded a watershed event in the centuries-old history of papermaking. Visionary and entrepreneur, twice president of the American Chemical Society, he expounded an idea which was revolutionary in that time: Southern pines could be grown as crops and made into excellent white paper.

For decades the prevailing wisdom held that southern pines were too gummy to be used for anything but cardboard and other brown paper. The forest and white paper industries had been built around the less sappy—and quickly dwindling—hardwoods of the northern United States and Canada. In the precarious economic climate of the 1930s, the paper industry had little incentive to venture elsewhere.

For Herty, the incentive was the Great Depression. His native South had been hard-hit by the stock market crash, bank closings, and other financial catastrophes. Many of his fellow Southerners knew little but farming and lived hand-to-mouth even in the best of times. The region’s abundant pines would provide an economic boost. “In order to give our people a living and get them out of one-room shacks, it may be desirable in the next 15 years to eat into our forest capital,” he told the Savannah Morning News.

Herty had saved these forests in 1903 by inventing a new method of extracting resin, used to make turpentine, that did not scar and damage the trees. Now, he turned to chemistry to address another concern: the high level of resin in the pines’ wood, which was believed to block the bleaching with acidic sulfite solutions needed to make white paper.

During a lecture in Germany 30 years earlier, Herty had heard that the sulfite process could be applied to the Tannenbaum the Germans used as Christmas trees. Herty reasoned that, like these trees, younger pines in the southern United States would be less gummy than mature ones. Moreover, the pines’ fast growth rate would make it possible to cultivate the trees, creating a renewable resource.

At age 65, when most of his contemporaries were retiring, Herty was ready to test his ideas and launch a new industry.

Herty built his research facility and pilot plant with funds provided by a Savannah businessman, the state of Georgia, and the Chemical Foundation, a nonprofit organization established after World War I. He directed his new lab to make pine into the pulp that would become paper, using acidic sulfite solutions to digest the wood, remove impurities and increase the effectiveness of bleaching agents.

The newsprint that became the history-making edition of the Soperton News was a product of Herty’s ability to inspire: his staff, who split into two 12-hour shifts and worked seven days a week to make enough pulp for the test; the newspaper publishers, who bought into his dream at $40 per ton knowing their established northern suppliers charged $32 per ton; and the businessmen who provided cold storage and refrigerated train cars to transport the pulp to a Canadian mill, whose owners produced the finished paper at no cost to Herty. Thus began a new era in papermaking. Fifteen pulp and paper mills were built in the southern United States between 1935 and 1940, simultaneously breathing life into the South’s devastated economy and slowing the destruction of the North’s hardwood forests.

Herty has a long and prestigious history with the American Chemical Society.  In fact, in 2001 Herty was recognized as an ACS Historic Landmark.

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